A Stay of Execution

Because so much attention is being paid to the debate raging between those obsessed with the expansion of the Port of Philadelphia and those who know better, it was only natural for us to direct our attention to newsworthy events in that region. Henry Holcomb, a staff writer at the Inquirer, had a story that caught our attention two days ago, and from both an historical and a practical perspective we felt it needed some input from us.

“A grand ship may sail again,” was Mr. Holcomb’s headline. The grand ship featured in his article is the SS United States, and ships just don’t get any grander than this legendary vessel. Although the “Big U” is securely berthed at Philadelphia’s Pier 82, Norwegian Cruise Lines is its current owner, and we should be mighty thankful for that. Colin Veitch, CEO of NCL, is firm in his intention to rebuild and refit the ship for use as a cruise ship, and as one of our dearest friends used to say, “From your lips to God’s ear”.

Built in 1952, the SS United States was the greatest of all “Oceanic Queens” during her 17 years of active service, and to this day still holds the speed record for Atlantic crossings … in both directions … and without exceeding two-thirds power!

Yes, we should indeed be thankful that NCL owns this vessel. Hundreds of other celebrated US-built vessels have unceremoniously been dispatched to Davy Jones’ Locker … as artificial reefs, they would have you believe … and this same ignominious fate would long ago have befallen this regal ship if U.S. officials had their say. But let’s hear again what Mr. Craig Hooper had to say about this inexcusable business of using navy vessels for target practice. Mr. Hooper, you’ll recall, used to serve on the CNO’s Maritime Strategy Group at the Naval War College.

“Over the past six years,” he begins, “ 79 condemned ships have been towed out to sea and destroyed by Air Force bombs, submarine-launched torpedoes or hails of gunfire. These exercises, long considered the most cost-effective way to dispose of unwanted naval vessels, have eaten away at America’s inventory of still-useful retired warships. Soon every vessel capable of serving in America’s reserve combat fleet could vanish, leaving an overextended Navy with no backup forces. This unwise drawdown goes against Navy tradition …

“The aircraft carrier USS Constellation, ‘mothballed’ in 2003, went from battle fleet to designation for the artificial-reef donation program in a mere three years …

“Since being sworn in last year, Secretary Donald C. Winter, a former Northrop Grumman executive, has headed a navy that is continuing to dispatch vessels with an efficiency unseen since just after World War II, when the battle fleet was chopped from 6,768 ships to 634.

“Important reserve warships are disappearing. The USS Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault vessel used to carry helicopters and Marines, returned from Persian Gulf deployment in 2004, was decommissioned in 2005 and was sunk just eight months later.

“At one time, prudent thinking would have dictated that the Belleau Wood undergo a life-extending refit and return to service for 15 more years. But that mind-set is gone …

“Even relatively fresh vessels are being wrecked. According to the Naval Vessel Registry, the ex-USS Valley Forge, a billion-dollar antiaircraft and missile-defense cruiser (also made by Northrop Grumman), was blasted after serving barely half of an expected 40-year lifetime. Four other recently decommissioned Aegis cruisers will probably follow suit.

“This flurry of ship disposal suggests the administration is getting rid of useful warships to compel construction of pricey new vessels such as the next-generation CG(X) anti-missile cruiser or the $ 3.3 billion DDG-1000 land-attack destroyer. When the Clinton administration pruned the national stockpile of reserve destroyers, only eight feeble, 46-year-old hulks went to the bottom. But the Bush administration has sunk (so far) a 31-year-old fleet of 27 destroyers. Twenty-two others have been scrapped or sold, and additional disposals are pending.

“In this carnage, virtually all 31 of the country’s middle-aged submarine-hunting Spruance-class destroyers have been sunk, scrapped or scheduled for destruction. As China readies a deep-ocean submarine fleet and more navies deploy cruise missiles on ultra-quiet diesel submarines, the rationale for eliminating a mothballed reserve fleet of sub-killing destroyers is scanty at best. The administration is destroying a cheap insurance policy.

“An inactive reserve has always been a national safety net. The country’s first large warship, the frigate USS United States, was maintained in mothballs after the Revolutionary War and returned to fight during the War of 1812. In the early days of World War II, when Britain and Canada needed anti-submarine escorts to fight Germany, reserves provided 50 World War I-era destroyers on short notice.

“After World War II, prudent Navy leaders invested $ 213 million to mothball a ‘Ghost Fleet’ of 2,000 surplus vessels. That supplied 381 much-needed warships during the Korean War, including 13 aircraft carriers and two battleships. Other ships were recalled for Vietnam, and even the enormous Iowa-class battlewagons returned to finish out the Cold War …

“This is no way to run a navy,” he said. [“… unless you want to run it into the ground!” … he shoulda said.]

The fact that the 55-year-old SS United States can still be refitted and returned to service attests to a number of points that we’ve been emphasizing:
• The irresponsible aims of unscrupulous officials, noted by Mr. Hooper when he stated that, “This flurry of ship disposal suggests the administration is getting rid of useful warships to compel construction of pricey new vessels …”
• U.S. shipyards and workers build the world’s most sophisticated and complex vessels.
• U.S. Naval vessel construction, being funded by U.S. taxpayers, is actually ‘subsidized’ by taxpayers in order that make-work shipbuilding programs can sustain selected shipyards.
• U.S. shipyards, therefore, should be building more ‘subsidized’ container ships … which are paid for by commercial interests … and fewer warships which are paid for by U.S. taxpayers.